I have come to the jungle of the Central African Republic to document the Bayaka honey gatherers, men who use dizzying skills to scale giant trees in order to harvest the sweetness of the jungle.
After breakfast I am introduced to Teté and Mongongé, two men well known in the local community for their climbing skills. “When climbing a big tree you have to empty your mind of fear,” says Teté. “If you have fear, you will fall. Many friends have died doing this.”
Standing at the bottom of the 40-meter tree, Teté is beside me holding a bundle of green leaves. His friend Mongongé is in the forest searching for a climbing harness. Mine is brightly colored and covered in brand logos. When Mongongé returns I am shocked to see that his is a dull brown length of dead liana. The contrast could not be more extreme.
He wraps the liana around himself and the base of the huge tree trunk and incises his first foothold with a primitive axe, pulling himself up to the freshly cut step. I clip on to my ropes and take my own first upward steps, belaying up a single line. A quick glance above reveals that Mongongé has already climbed three or more meters ahead of me.
By the time I arrive next to my Bayaka colleague I am completely spent. Next to me, Mongongé looks calm, sporting a wry smile. Close up, I notice a crude knot in his liana is the only thing stopping it from unslipping and releasing him to certain death below. The thought makes my stomach turn.
I hurriedly begin to start working, snapping photos in quick succession to take my mind off the panic rising from the pit of my stomach. Focusing on my work has a transcendental effect and I begin to build up the confidence to start pushing myself away from the trunk in order to get a better perspective on our situation, abseiling into thin air and taking photos from the furthest point away from the tree as Mongongé starts to climb the final few metres to the crown. This time I don’t follow him. The fear and insects are getting the better of me and I decide to descend to observe from the base of the tree.
What happens next takes my breath away. As Mongongé reaches the hive, Tete attaches his burning bundle of leaves to the end of his partner’s liana and he begins to hoist it up the tree. A crowd has gathered around us. Among them is Mongongé’s wife. “The children aren’t afraid for him – just proud!" she says. “They say: ‘Wow! Look at dad!'”
Wow indeed. If it was not enough to be hanging 40 meters up a tree attached by only a vulnerable piece of liana and surrounded by stinging bees... now you have a bundle of burning leaves in your hand too.
The lengths some people will go to get a sugar fix.